GUEST BLOG: Ian Powell – Fascism and the anti-vaccination protests in New Zealand

The violent nature of the anti-vaccination protests in Aotearoa New Zealand, including the occupation of Parliament Grounds and the nearby streets in February-March, have raised the question of whether this was an example of fascism in action or perhaps in development.

This raises the prior question of what is fascism. One view is that expressed in an article published by Stuff (29 June) by liberal writer Joe Bennett: Supreme Court decision part of fascism rerun in United States.

Authoritarianism and fascism

Bennett is an astute gifted writer who outlines well the liberal understanding of fascism. His focus is on the US Supreme Court’s horrendous and ideologically driven decision to repeal the right of women to abortions and the wider forces behind the attempted coup in January 2021. He was not referring to the anti-vaccination protests.

Correctly noting that fascism is “…an overused word and variously defined”, Bennett then proceeds to summarise fascism. In his words:

It’s a dictatorship. It’s nationalist. It loves guns and uniforms. It preaches a bogus mythology about returning to a better past. It likes traditional religion and traditional religion likes it. It demonises outsiders and subordinates women. It is not frightened to use violence.

Joe Bennett equates fascism with authoritarianism


In other words, fascism is authoritarianism. If this interpretation were to be applied to the world today, fascism would be one of the more dominant political systems in the world governing  many countries such as Saudi Arabia, Libya, Brazil, Poland, Hungary and India. Arguably it might also include the Republican controlled states in the United States.

Sorry Joe; you are wrong

I disagree with Bennett. Fascism is authoritarian but authoritarianism is not necessarily fascism, even allowing for overlapping characteristics. Authoritarianism is an anti-democratic government by a strong leader or small elite.

Fascism means more than dictatorship. It also involves a far-right movement that has a strong base in the marginalised; the disempowered and disengaged. But not just among marginalised low paid workers and unemployed; also among those many marginalised people in the ‘middle’ and ‘professional classes’.

Fascism’s philosopher: Giovanni Gentile

Fascism’s philosopher: Giovanni Gentile

The person who most consider to be the ‘philosopher of fascism’ is Giovanni Gentile (1875-1944). He was a major figure in Italian idealist philosophy, politician, educator, and editor. In June 1925 he gave a lecture in Florence on fascism. One of the most revealing quotes was:

How many times has Fascism been accused with obtuse malevolence of barbarity? Well yes: once you understand the true significance of this barbarity we will boast of it, as the expression of the healthy energies which shatter false and baleful idols, and restore the health of the nation within the power of a State conscious of its sovereign rights which are its duties.

But it was another Italian, Benito Mussolini, who developed the term fascism. Building on his personality cult he created the first one-party fascist state in the 1920s. At this time he was an exemplar for Adolf Hitler as he was establishing his Nazi Party in Germany.

Fascism as a movement has always interested me. From a Marxist perspective the earliest to grasp its wider significance were Leon Trotsky and Antonio Gramsci. But the book that really caught my attention was Fascism and Big Business by French libertarian Marxist Daniel Guerin.

This book significantly helped my understanding of fascism


As well as discussing the social dynamic of fascism in the context of the Italian and German experiences, Guerin highlighted its dependence on big business support because of the latter’s fear of capitalism’s vulnerability to collapse.

When capitalism is not seen to be under threat big business is more likely to support formal democratic systems. But when it is seen to be under threat, significant parts of big business are prepared to support fascism in order to prevent a left-wing socialist alternative becoming government.

Anti-vaccination protests

Fascism then is a political movement that embraces far-right nationalism and the forceful suppression of any opposition. When in power it is overseen by an authoritarian government. Fascism is strongly anti-individual rights along with aggressively opposing liberals, socialists and democracy itself.

So where does this fit in with the anti-vaccination protests. I have posted in Political Bytes on these protests. The first was published at the early stages of the occupation of Parliament Grounds (14 February): Rights, responsibilities and far-right agendas.

I drew upon some very good analysis by journalists Charlie Mitchell (Stuff) and David Fisher (NZ Herald). The second post was published just over a month later (17 March): Immorality of moral equivalence.

Matthew Cunningham: an insightful read on the occupation


Subsequently (7 April) The Spinoff published an enlightening article by historian Matthew Cunningham who differentiated between neo-Nazi white supremacist elements and a wider radical (far) right presence: Troubling growth of radical right.

If Bennett’s summary of fascism was correct, then the protests were an expression of fascism. The level of intimidation of and threats towards local residents, workers at neighbouring workplaces, and people happening to be passing by along with the threats of violence including towards politicians and the media.

The far-right activists present were vigorous in their call for the overthrow of an elected government. There was also the attempts to takeover local marae and vigilante-type behaviour towards some schools over vaccination.

As shocking as these actions were, Cunningham’s more nuanced description is closer to the mark. The composition of the protesters did change the longer it went on with the far-right leadership becoming more dominant. This leadership was the main source of ‘information’ at the occupation.

There was also a definite weird presence at the occupation such as those who believed that they were being attacked by electromagnetic transmission and therefore tin foil was required to protect them.

My electrician neighbour was most forthright in advising me that, first, electromagnetic transmission does not work that way and, second, even if it did, tin foil would be totally ineffective as protection.

An embryo?

A major characteristic of the broad mass of protesters was a complete distrust in science and the mainstream media, especially over vaccines. Consequently their main information came from the Steven Bannon linked far-right Counterspinwhich was regularly streaming in. This was a receptive audience for right-wing extremism, including fascism.

But the protest was not fascism in action. It was not a popular movement of anything like the magnitude of those movements that have brought fascism into power in earlier times. It was not of the magnitude that helped enable the military to overthrow the elected left-wing government and install a fascist dictatorship in Chile nearly 50 years ago. They were well short of the numbers needed to replicate this in Aotearoa.

Nor was it backed by big business interests of note. There was some business support but miniscule given the number and sized of businesses in New Zealand. In fact, most of the funding came from far-right groups in the United States.

For fascism to come to power in Aotearoa it would require a significant number of big businesses to believe that capitalism was under threat and consequently prepared to support a fascist movement.

So were the anti-vaccination protests, including the occupation of Parliament Grounds, fascist? No. Were they fertile territory for authoritarian far-right (including fascist) ideas to disseminate? Yes.

Were they the embryo of a fascist movement? Potentially yes; but much more would be required for such an embryo to develop into a threat to democracy.

Ian Powell was Executive Director of the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists, the professional union representing senior doctors and dentists in New Zealand, for over 30 years, until December 2019. He is now a health systems, labour market, and political commentator living in the small river estuary community of Otaihanga (the place by the tide). First published at Political Bytes

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